Saul Leiter - Early Color
Steidl - ISBN 3-86521-139-9
This is the book that launched a thousand Instagram accounts and made colour street photography suddenly fashionable again. Not the desaturated colour of the New Topographic movement or the Dusseldorf school, but strong, vintage Kodachrome colour. Closer in style to Ernst Haas than to Stephen Shore.
Saul Leiter was initially trained as an artist and this is reflected in his compositions, which are based around reflections, shadows and colour. White Circle, 1958 is a good example.
Based in New York, his day job was as a fashion photographer for publications such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar, his street photography was purely a passtime. However it was his personal work that fired people's imagination and this book marked his breakthrough into the public consciousness.
The photographs open a window into the past, as they mostly date from the late 40’s and 50’s with only one from the 60’s and one from the 70’s. They show New Yorkers going about their business, in restaurants, trains and buses, smoking, shopping. A world untroubled by climate change, pandemics, social media and other 21st century ills. The formality of dress, especially womens clothing, is strange to the modern eye.
Leiter’s style differed from other street photographers in that he wasn’t wedded to wide angle focal lengths nor fetishised getting as close to his subject as possible. He frequently shot with telephoto lenses up to 150mm. This gave him the focal length compression effect that he used in his more abstract work, layering planes of colour on top of each other and picking figures out against busy backgrounds.
His work was often highly impressionistic. Mirrors and reflections feature a lot, obscuring or distorting the subject. He did shoot more traditional street subjects, such as the often reproduced shot of the postmen in a snowy New York although sometimes these were just simple studies, a dog lazing in a sunny doorway, a shoe shine peering back at the photographer from his booth. The combination of Kodak processing and age has given the pictures a warmth which, in a TV show, would signify a flashback sequence. In my view there is no better way to describe these pictures, they depict a past over half a century distant and evoke a strange nostalgia.
For me, this book remains inspirational. I confess that, whilst I was familiar with Ernst Haas’s work, I had never heard of Saul Leiter and this book was revelatory. It showed that you could apply artistry to street shooting and whilst purists will say that it’s not street photography as practiced by the likes of Garry Winogrand, I find it more satisfying.
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